TEAR here

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The hotel where I'm staying in Morgantown, West Virginia kindly gave me a complimentary rectangular packet of freshmint toothpaste.  At the top right corner of the packet, there was a dotted, diagonal line with the words "TEAR HERE" printed above it.  Alas, no matter how hard I tried, I could not tear it open.

Then I thought that maybe I could RIP it open by pulling on the serrations along the upper edge of the packet.  No luck.

Then I tried to BITE and GNASH the packet with my teeth.  Abject failure.

Of course, I've been through all of this countless times before, and not just with toothpaste, but with packets of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and all sorts of other things.  It is especially dismaying when — after making a supreme effort — the packet bursts open and the contents spurt all over the place, including your clothing.  The worst case is when soy sauce flies out and drips everywhere.

Fortunately, this time, I have a paring knife with me, so I CUT the packet with its tip, not without a certain amount of messy spillage.  You have to be careful when you open one of those little packets with a knife, though, because the point might slip and slice your finger, then you have a problem of how to sta[u]nch the blood.

Occasionally, the packets will have a little notch, indentation, or beginning of an opening on the top left side.  They tend to work better than the ones that tell you to TEAR HERE.

Moral of the story:  packet designers and engineers should make packets that are fairly easy to open, and linguists who work for these companies should use precise terminology that correctly conveys what the consumer must do to extract the contents of the packets they are dispensing.  This applies to all manner of instructions and directions that are prepared for hapless customers.


Selected readings


  1. David Morris said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 6:11 am

    Maybe it's TEAR to rhyme with DEAR, and not TEAR to rhyme with DARE.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 6:16 am

    Yep, you're right! Sometimes I'm almost reduced to that by my frustration. Like when I want the mayonnaise now!

  3. Cervantes said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 6:24 am

    I always use scissors. Glad to know I'm not alone.

  4. Carl said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 7:48 am

    For some reason, the tear here packets in Japan are much better and actually work, but the ones in America don’t work. I don’t understand why the technology is deficient here.

  5. Robot Therapist said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 8:27 am

    It only happens in places (like hotels) where the liquid is provided "free". Nobody would choose to purchase such a plastic packet.

  6. Mark P said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 9:42 am

    I always carry a very small Swiss Army knife they has a tiny pair of scissors for things like that. The scissors are just barely adequate for trimming fingernails, but they work just fine for opening those packets.

  7. Robert Coren said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 10:01 am

    I have often remarked that, if I ruled the world, the one most feared agency in my otherwise benevolent dictatorship would be the Packaging Police, who would hunt down and punish appropriately the designers, makers, and distributors of user-unfriendly packaging.

  8. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 10:26 am

    It's the same in the UK and Germany. I've worried about damaging my teeth sometimes, trying the bite tactic.
    Batteries, particularly the flat cell ones can challenge your ingenuity and patience enormously.
    All the solutions with knives and scissors are no use if you're travelling by plane: you lose them at security.

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    My dad once pointed out to me that ‘tear along dotted line’ could be interpreted as ‘run like crazy along dotted line’ (as viewed by, e.g., an ant).

  10. Jamie said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 11:39 am

    I saw an interview with a company that distributed DVDs (or maybe VHS tapes, it was a long timer ago. At the beginning the host said, "Here's one of your products, perhaps you could open it while we chat." It did not go well for him

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 7, 2023 @ 11:40 am

    linguists who work for these companies

    I can't decide if this is an optimistic or pessimistic view of the job market for graduating linguistics students. Yes! Career paths in business do exist! — writing "TEAR HERE" on packets of ketchup.

  12. Nune (nu-neh) said,

    May 8, 2023 @ 7:44 am

    My proposal to fix this is that every single company across the world should have outsourced linguists. There are no flaws with this idea.

  13. unekdoud said,

    May 8, 2023 @ 10:28 am

    It always seems to be the dotted *diagonal* lines that get me. I wonder how many ketchup packets I've messed up by tearing off the tiniest possible corner and leaving even less attack surface.

    Anyway, text adventure games have taught me that it isn't the verb that matters so much as what's in your inventory. Preferably, not a small fluid packet.

  14. Seth said,

    May 9, 2023 @ 7:53 am

    My understanding is that maintaining the machinery to produce those perforations is a more complicated task than one might think. The cutters have a tendency to go dull, leading to the problem of tear lines that don't tear. But keeping sharp cutters can be expensive and/or time-consuming, especially considering the cost margin on creating the package itself. Some companies do it better than others.

  15. ohwilleke said,

    May 10, 2023 @ 4:42 pm

    Another favorite of mine is an instant noodle contains that says "ignore fill line".

    If we are supposed to ignore it, why not omit it in the first place?

  16. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 12, 2023 @ 1:50 am

    I had a related problem this morning: opening a packet of raisins, the tear line (which came with a notch at each end) worked perfectly, but once I've torn off the top, I found that the front and back of the packet were firmly attached to one another to a couple millimetres below the tear line. I ended up getting a pair of scissors and cutting the packet open half a centimetre down. Happily, this was still just above the plastic thingies allowing you to seal the packet again.

    Poorly calibrated machinery is presumably to blame.

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